Must Eat Meat

Craving Wagyu? Head to San Francisco

Along with Golden Gate Bridge and the world’s most crooked street, California’s City by the Bay is starting to earn a reputation for serving A5 beef from some of Japan’s most obscure prefectures.

Craving Wagyu? Head to San Francisco
Ittoryu Gozu

San Francisco’s hottest new restaurant Ittoryu Gozu has a menu developed around one ingredient: a whole Japanese cow.

Chef and co-owner Marc Zimmerman imports one whole cut — the full set of meat from one animal, averaging 340kg — from a Japanese farmer at a time. When Gozu launched in November, it was Zimmerman’s Private Reserve allocation of Hokkaido Snow Beef from producer Chateau Uenae — an extremely limited-production wagyu raised in sub-zero temperatures on Japan’s northernmost island — that headlined the menu.

Beef products are used in every dish to show the utility of wagyu and how regional genetics, feed and husbandry influences the flavour of the beef — much in the same way terroir influences the grapes used in wine production.

The first dish of grilled albacore tataki is brushed with beef garum and grilled over binchotan charcoal. Other courses include wild mushroom grilled in wagyu fat with wagyu smoke and a decadent chawanmushi with beef dashi, wild mushrooms and smoked roe.

“We’re setting out to show people the differences between farms and that it’s not all just ‘wagyu’. It’s not a commodity… not just a luxury fatty beef for one course,” Zimmerman explains.

Gozu is not the only wagyu-forward experience to launch in San Francisco in recent times.

Niku Steakhouse and its sister business, The Butcher Shop, opened last January offering imported A5 Japanese wagyu from 12 prefectures. This month’s menu includes Satsuma, Bushu and Takamori “Drunken Wagyu” from Yamaguchi Prefecture, so-called because the cattle are fed with sake mash, a by-product from the nearby Dassai brewery.

At other long-time steakhouses, menus are shifting to highlight Japanese products. Alexander’s Steakhouse — where Zimmerman worked as executive chef before opening Gozu — has started importing Hitachi beef for a tasting menu where each dish is made from and dedicated to a different part of the animal. It’s the only place you can taste Hitachi beef in the US.

While it’s hard to state definitively which American city is best for dining out, San Francisco is regarded as one of the most diverse and innovative, and The Michelin Guide offers a tangible yardstick: The first-ever Michelin Guide California lists seven restaurants with three stars in the San Francisco Bay area, surpassing New York’s five; California is the state with the most stars, overall.

For 2019, one trend has really been cooking in the NorCal capital: Japanese beef.

Image: Ittoryu Gozu

Wagyu — a literal translation of “wa” which means “Japanese” and “gyu”, cow — has long been revered for its lace-like, marbled intramuscular fat and buttery, melt-in-the-mouth texture.

Japanese wagyu, as opposed to Japanese cattle breeds reared in other countries, is particularly distinctive because of the country’s isolationist history and esoteric regional farming cultures.

As Japan mechanised during the mid19th century, farmers no longer needed to raise cattle to work the land and began to raise them for meat. During the Meiji era (1868–1912) — when the Japanese opened their doors to international trade and lifted the ban on beef consumption — several breeds of European cattle were imported and crossbred with native Japanese breeds before live imports were prohibited in 1910.

Four main strains of cattle resulted, of which the Japanese Black has the unique genetic ability to produce the intramuscular marbling associated with wagyu and accounts for 90 percent of all wagyu cattle in Japan.

The Kobe brand, named after the capital of Hyogo, the prefecture where it’s produced, is often the first touchpoint for consumers. The Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association notes that former US President Barack Obama specifically ordered Kobe beef during his 2009 Japan visit, and that the father of former LA Lakers player Kobe Bryant named his son after the region’s meat.

But the “Kobe” label is often misused, with wagyu mislabelled as Kobe or Kobe-style. Of the 7,000 Tajima-gyu cattle sent to market in Hyogo each year, only 5,500 are certified as Kobe beef; any business that wants to sell Kobe beef must pay $5,000 to the Association for the licence to do so. Currently, 48 businesses have a licence to sell Kobe in the US, six of which are located in San Francisco. In Singapore, 13 licences are held.

Chef Ce Bian of Roka Akor, a Japanese steakhouse chain that opened its first outlet in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2008 and currently runs six restaurants, including one in San Francisco, says the group developed relationships with the Kobe Association in its early years of international export to become Kobe’s 13th licencee. (The group’s restaurants also offers wagyu from Hokkaido, Miyazaki and Takamori, as well as Sachuma, Osaka and Kumamoto, when available.)

And while some esteem Kobe beef as Japan’s best, it was empirically beaten by that of other prefectures in the most recent All-Japan National Wagyu Cattle Expo, or Zenkoku Wagyu Noryku Kyoshin-kai, more commonly known as the Wagyu Olympics, held in 2017. Kagoshima took the top spot in the overall competition, Oita prefecture for best bull and Miyazaki for best beef cattle. (Wolfgang Puck served Miyazaki wagyu at last year’s Oscar’s.)

Wagyu doesn’t necessarily have to come from Japan — before Japan declared its cows a national treasure and prohibited the export of live animals and DNA in 1997, a small number of animals were shipped to other countries where they propagated entire herds.

The American Wagyu Association, which was established in 1990 and registers wagyu cattle in the US, Canada and other countries, defines American wagyu as cattle with either one full blood (100- percent traceable to Japanese herds with no evidence of crossbreeding) or purebred wagyu, which contains more than 93.75 percent pure blood parentage, an industry standard certified by USDA.

Executive director Robert Williams says the main reason ranchers are increasingly turning to wagyu is because of its superiority as a product.

“Wagyu offers the genetics to produce the highest-quality beef product in the world. It’s an eating experience no other breed can offer,” he says.

Image: Ittoryu Gozu

Wagyu has become such a mainstay at Bay Area restaurants and you can find it in some variation on most menus — I’ve enjoyed it as a US$4 slider at my neighbourhood dive bar and a US$450, 300g serving at Niku — so it’s not surprising some diners aren’t clear on wagyu’s differentiators.

Every country has its own grading system for wagyu although the Body Marbling Score (BMS), which denotes the degree of intramuscular fat, is a common denominator.

In Japan, meat is graded with letters A through C to denote yield — amount of fat from one animal — and a number to BMS, from one through 12. Meat graded A5 is the highest yield, with a BMS 8 through a maximum of 12.

In the US, the highest grade, USDA Prime, is given to meat with BMS 3 and above, which equates to Japanese A3 or above, which means A4 or A5 is literally off the US scale.

But while Japanese A5 is often perceived as the best quality in the US, Zimmerman says each grade should be considered a notation of properties, rather than quality. “If you dry-age A3, you’ve got all the flavour of wagyu with the texture of American beef. The majority of Japan prefers A4 because it’s a much more evenly marbled piece of meat,” he explains.

Zimmerman has yet to find a farm in the US that can produce an animal of the same quality found in Japan due to the farmers’ proprietary raising methods and attention to detail — a culture that has several myths, for instance, that wagyu are massaged every day, or only drink beer or sake. To ensure that the animals are in good health, farmers maintain strict hygiene practices, keeping their cowsheds extremely clean and grooming the animals carefully, and brushing their coats and caring for their hoofs.

“Beer feeding and sake feeding [is only done] in celebration. It can be anything from a new calf being born to winning a breeder’s award,” he explains. “And then some farms will use beer in the hot months to get cows to eat. Cows don’t like the heat.”

  • Niku Steakhouse and its sister business, The Butcher Shop, offer imported A5 Japanese wagyu from 12 prefectures

Wagyu isn’t just gaining popularity in San Francisco, but in the country as a whole. In 2016, 336 tonnes of Japanese beef were imported. In 2018, that figure climbed to 1,020.

According to data by The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries supplied to California-based importer Trex, the US is the fourth largest market for wagyu after Taiwan, Hong Kong and Cambodia (through which, Trex says, China smuggles its beef). Singapore is the fifth largest market, importing 247 tonnes last year.

And as international appetites for wagyu grow, especially among countries where there’s an established culture of eating off cuts and off al (bone-in cuts and offal are still banned in US in the wake of the BSE crisis), Zimmerman says increased competition for Japan’s limited supply means that specialist importers, restaurants and retailers increasingly have to build personal relationships to secure allocations from farmers and brokers.

Zimmerman co-founded and integrated importer-distributor A-Five Meat Company into Gozu’s business to ensure control over product chain of custody, and to make full sets available to other chefs to foster a culture of using Japanese wagyu off cuts in the US.

Once Zimmerman has worked his way through his Snow beef, he’s considering importing Omi beef from Shiga prefecture, or Hida beef, raised in Gifu prefecture and named for its northernmost region. According to the Hida Beef Brand Promotion Council website, Hida beef is currently not distributed in the US.

“Hida beef is super-culty. We’ve just started importing some of that within the past year and it’s amazing. I don’t think a whole lot of people know about it so it’s something that’s on the radar,” says Zimmerman.

This story first appeared in the January/February issue of A Magazine.

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